Is There Anything That Still Challenges Celebrity Chef Wolfgang Puck?
Who doesn’t know Wolfgang Puck? A celebrity chef in his own right, he has built a culinary empire which consists of fine dining restaurants (which are usual hangouts of Hollywood elites), casual eateries, catering arm and most recently — an online cooking school.
In Singapore, his presence is very much felt with two establishments located at the Marina Bay Sands — Cut which has made a name for serving the finest steaks in town as well as the recently-opened Spago, which serves contemporary Californian cuisine. Oh, it also has matching view of the Marina Bay skyline. In town recently for a whirlwind tour in Asia, we chatted with him to find out about his latest venture and what else can we expect from him.
Welcome back to Singapore! Whenever you visit our sunny shores, is there a particular local dish that you always crave for?
In my earlier days, I would often crave for the Singapore chilli crab and fish head soup. But now that we have restaurants here, I seldom go out. We have different nationalities working in our kitchens — Indian, Filipino and Chinese — who can cook easily whip up authentic dishes.
Is Asian cuisine a bit part of your career?
I opened Spago in 1982 and the year after, Chinois, which is a Chinese restaurant that I made my style.
Do tell us — what is the Wolfgang Puck style?
It’s all about making my own. When I made a Peking Duck, I didn’t want to open a can and serve with my duck. I created my own sauce, but not with hoisin sauce. I used plum sauce, salt, pepper and cinnamon. I also added a bit of fresh mint to go with the duck. As for the duck, I stuck to the traditional way of preparing it — which is to dry overnight. But it had more flavour.
Image credit: Wolfgang Puck Facebook
Could you take us through your cooking process?
I always have a certain flavour in mind, and I try to get there my way. I don’t want to open a cookbook and follow what other people have done. I follow my own style; sometimes it’s very similar and other times, it’s totally different.
It’s just like singing a song or painting. If you imitate Picasso, nobody would care. But if you paint a picture your way, people might say that’s interesting. It’s the same with food — whether you have lamb, beef, fish — you have to find your own voice.
Do you have an ingredient that you always use in your cooking?
I don’t have a favourite. When I started Chinois, I used ginger, garlic and scallions on almost everything. But now, I love different kinds of spices. I enjoy food with a lot of flavour.
For someone with a global palate, is there anything that you don’t like to eat?
I don’t like peanut butter, which is traditional American. I didn’t grow up with it.
Do you have any favourite food?
As I get older, I enjoy simpler flavours. When I was young, I would make up a dish with 25 ingredients and I’d think it was good. Today, I want to enjoy fish, meat or greens for its natural taste, so it’s all about quality. I try not to mess them up by cooking it the right way.
Image credit: Marina Bay Sands
You recently launched your own online cooking school. Could you tell us more about your latest venture?
We launched it in January this year. It’s the newest thing for me. I used to write cookbooks, but if I wanted to add maybe five more recipes, I couldn’t. With this, I can just add recipes. I went to the studio in April to shoot more dishes so there are new recipes you can find on the site. There are also videos which teach you the basics of cooking, as well as step-by-step guides on preparing different dishes. These can help you build the right foundation if you want to pursue a culinary career.
Speaking of chefs who want to make it in this industry. Reality TV makes it easy for aspiring chefs to start their career. What do you make of this?
All these TV shows are very good in the sense that it elevated our profession. But now, it’s all about competition amongst children, families and adults. Unlike before, you could really learn how to cook with shows on channels like Food Network.
But if you were to decide how you would start your career today, how would you want it?
It would still be about building the foundation, like a house. It’s important to learn the basic culinary techniques, master them before you decide where you want to go.
Image credit: Spago/Marina Bay Sands
It’s been a while since you set up Cut, and now you have Spago. What do you think Singapore wants from the fine dining scene?
Like many major cities today, Singapore has a lot of great restaurants. How can we be better, not just in food but in hospitality? For us, we stress on the hospitality part because it is very important that our diners feel like they’re at home and well taken care of.
Next time they go out for a meal, they will go back because of the overall experience — and not just the food. You can serve the best food in the world, but if the staff are not polite, they won’t spend their money there.
With everything you have achieved, is there anything that still challenges you?
I always like to do new things and it’s always a challenge. Opening restaurants are a challenge because you never know how to put it together. When push turns to shove, it’s always nerve-wracking.
The online cooking school was also something totally new for me. Why did I do it? Will it change my life? No. But it’s a better way than writing cookbooks.